The Internet: A Pandora’s Box?

The Internet offers a treasure trove of helpful information at our fingertips. Unfortunately, it has also amplified the voices of the worst people on earth. I’m talking about Trolls — and offering a few suggestions on how to handle them.

The term “Troll” refers to someone, often anonymous, who “starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain.”

Partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats immediately comes to mind, but that isn’t the only place where intolerance exists.

A friend I follow on Instagram posted a happy photo of herself showing off her baby bump. She’s done some modeling in the past, including some risque photos. Some of the comments were beyond hateful, suggesting a paternity test would be needed to sort out who the father was and that sort of thing. I remarked that this was cruel to say, and one person replied…

“Ah shut up, Grandpa. Not everyone has the same sense of humor! We’re just having some fun.”

Fun? Are they 10 years old?

Mockery at the expense of someone who is trying to leave a part of her life behind her and move on with her husband to build a family. Cruelty for sport. Which is depressing to realize that there are millions of people out there whose idea of fun is ruining someone else’s day, making them cry.

Trolls are the same demented people who sprinkle salt on a slug, creating a salt-water solution to dehydrate it until it dies, shriveled on the sidewalk. And I’m sure some people trolling the Internet are the same ones hacking websites for the sake of being a nuisance.

If there’s any justice in the afterlife, these jerks will have to review a list of every cruel act and explain why they deserve to enter into heaven instead of taking the express elevator to hell.

Oh, who am I kidding? They are going straight to hell.

The Russian Troll Army is Coming!

Trolls love a president who feels no shame hurling out childish insults at people in the establishment who’ve promised solutions for years and rarely delivered. They love it when Trump gets under the skin of people who are easily provoked (yet he is so thin-skinned that any criticism leads to an escalatory response).

His fans grin in delight when the rest of us get torn up emotionally and react with disgust to children separated from their parents and put in cages. Trolls don’t care who is put in a cage until ICE shows up at their door and threatens to do the same to them.

We approach the 2020 election with an awareness of the role played in 2016 by troll farms run by the Internet Research Agendy (IRA) in Russia. The point of sponsoring paid Internet trolling is to make the Internet so distasteful that ordinary people are not willing to participate.

The Russians have sowed discord by sharing misinformation about the safety of vaccines, exploiting racial grievances, and provoking violent clashes between opposing sides at concocted rallies and protests.

According to US Intelligence Agencies, more than a thousand professional trolls “started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.” They created fake accounts on social networking sites, discussion boards, online newspaper sites, and video hosting services to promote the Kremlin’s interests in domestic and foreign policy. The US indicted 13 Russian nationals earlier this year for violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere “with US elections and political processes”, according to the Justice Department.

The Russians succeeded in showing they could invent any fact, then watch it absolutely synchronized with the media outlets as one massive information outflow and spread worldwide. And such activities are unlikely to provoke the type of military response that would happen if the Russians had instead inflicted physical damage on American soverign territory, which means they are likely to attempt it again.

So far, it looks like they are succeeding again, aided by a president they likely put in office who feeds off the negativity they produce to discredit his opponents.

How to Respond to Trolls on the Internet

How do we deal with trolls? Here’s some tips:

1. Ignore Them

They say horrible things to provoke us into giving them attention. They want us to acknowledge they’ve succeeded in making us angry, frustrated or uncomfortable. If they don’t get that satisfaction through feedback, they’ll most likely go away and bother someone else.

For several years, my hometown was terrorized by a certain group that likes to wear white sheets and criticize minorities. The spectacle of them holding a rally on the steps of my county’s courthouse attracted the regional TV news stations. It gave our community a big black eye. Then they stopped coming. Why? Because our community finally realized that they fed off the counter-protestors shouting back at them. Once they had a diminished capacity to affect us, it was a waste of their time and energy. Sadly, these days, the racists are so emboldened that they don’t even feel any need to hide who they are.

2. Steal Their Thunder

how to respond to trolls

You can also get the better of troll by using humor to make light of their critique while defusing it sting. Celebrities who go on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show and read aloud cruel Tweets about them are a great example. This converts the negative energy directed at the target of the Tweet into showing that they are unaffected and able to laugh it off while making the author of the Tweet seem petty and stupid.

3. Refuse to Be Affected

Another way of putting this is how Michelle Obama expressed it when trolls said horrible, racist things about her and her husband, suggesting she was a man, monkey-like or not legitimate Americans. She said:

“When they go low, we go high.”

Another example that might be relatable. After Auburn won the national championship in 2010, rival Alabama fans mercilessly taunted Tiger fans, determined not to let them enjoy success. Tide faithful had enjoyed pointing out to Auburn people that their last title was in 1957. With a fresh championship under their belt, the insult became obsolete, do they relentlessly shared new insults like insinuating that the Tigers had to pay their Heisman-caliber quarterback, Cam Newton, under the table (no proof of that was ever found). It was tough not to take it personally, but a friend of mine, Rick Hughes, set me straight by pointing out that “champions don’t care what people who are jealous say about them. Start thinking like champions.”

4. Don’t Turn to the Dark Side

At a certain level, trolls can drag us down to their level if we allow them to occupy real estate in our heads. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Reacting with emotion, specifically anger leading to hasty retaliation/escalation, ends up inflicting more harm than good. Sinking to a hateful person’s level disrupts our own peace of mind and changes who we are for the worse.

5. Unmask Cowards

Because trolls thrive on anonymity, unmasking them so there are consequences for their words makes them think twice about what they put out into the world. Giving them a taste of their own medicine works nicely as well. I once worked with a guy who was constantly doing stupid practical jokes to make other people look ridiculous, but when some of us played a similar gag on him, the dude stormed outside crying and demanding an apology! Sometimes people need a metaphorical kick in the balls to grasp the importance of the Golden Rule.

6. Listen and Reflect

This may seem counter-intuitive, but listening can sometimes lead to positive outcomes. Actress Sarah Silverman took the time to look at one of her troll’s social media profiles and showed empathy for this person going through a difficult time due to a back injury and lacking health insurance. She actually helped this stranger and converted a troll into a grateful fan. Brands can also try to get useful information at the root of online criticism, what lies beneath the surface of the hurtful comment.

It’s good to take a hard look in the mirror at your actions. Hypocrisy’s easy if you are too close to your own interactions to recognize that you are the troll.

7. Fight Back with Facts

Sometimes you can’t ignore trolls or laugh off their comments. When they spread misinformation, you must fight back with facts and address issues head-on. This tends to be the way many of us react on Facebook. Don’t leave it up to some jerk to fill in the blanks or let him tell your story.

8. Don’t Feed the Trolls

Get in front of controversy if you must, but choose your battles wisely. Don’t get baited by every single provocation. And, at a certain point, it becomes highly unproductive to sustain a conversation that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. That’s a good way to find out you’ve wasted half your day engaging some toad instead of working or going outside to do something fun. Sometimes, landing your rhetorical punch makes you vulnerable to a retaliatory sucker punch.

9. Remember: Why Does it Matter?

Who cares what some idiot on the internet thinks? Just because someone says something hurtful, that doesn’t make it true.

There are memes pointing this out:

“I used to care what people thought about me until one day I tried to pay my bills with their opinions.”

Another reads:

“If you don’t sign my paycheck, pay my bills or sleep in my bed, your opinion of me means absolutely nothing.”

When you free yourself from caring what strangers on the Internet think about you, it takes a weight off of you.

10. Admit Your Mistakes

I’ve been trolled by strangers for getting information wrong when I was a newspaper reporter. There’s a temptation to just let it slide and hope no one notices, but the right thing to do is to correct genuine mistakes. It hurt my ego on rare occasions when I had to write a retraction or clarification, but sharing accurate details was more important than sparing myself of some humble pie. By admitting that you are fallible, you demonstrate that you want to be truthful and can be trusted.

Trump handles his mistakes the wrong way, always finding someone else to shift blame to or refusing to acknowledge he lied. He tries to convince us that we shouldn’t believe what we see and hear with our own eyes and ears. He constantly screams that anything that portrays him in a less than glorious light is “fake news.” And instantly reveals himself to be full of it by lifting up any news he likes from those same sources as the truth. A bit too convenient, no?

Resistance is Futile

how to react to internet trollsMy final thought is that arguing with a troll set in his or her ways is an exercise in futility. No amount of logic can counter fanaticism, dogmatism or bigotry. It’s impossible to argue with someone who uses the Bible as proof of the validity of their points made. Someone who has been told since childhood that a book contains the infallible Word of God will be unwilling to accept views, beliefs or behaviors that differ from his or her own. Some trolls are so evil, one wonders if religion and the threat of never-ending torment in the fires of hell was invented to keep them acting right.

To be fair, stubbornness can also be a quality shared by hypersensitive social justice warriors firm in their own intolerance. Is it intolerant to deny someone else their own prejudice and intolerance?

Where Do We Go From Here?

If our bold American experiment in coexistence is to continue and succeed, we must find ways to build understanding and raise the level of civic discourse. We need to be aware that foreign powers are actively working to cause division within American society. This means keeping our cool, giving others room to vent, and checking information before sharing it.

Let’s shut down trolls who make us regret the day Al Gore invented the Internet.

Blog 2019 Steven Stiefel | Stiefel Creative